A call from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for district health boards to try and avert nurses’ strike action over a pay stalemate is prompting both parties to meet at short notice today.

The New Zealand Nurses Organisation yesterday announced that its DHB nurse, midwife and health care assistant members had rejected a revised pay offer from the 20 DHBs .  Cee Payne, NZNO industrial services manager, also announced NZNO was launching a national campaign in the lead-up to a likely strike ballot – on possibly a series of 24 hour strikes – if a deal cannot be reached that meets distressed nurses’ concern about pay and safe staffing.

Ashley Bloomfield, the spokesperson for the 20 DHBs, said the two parties had agreed to meet at short notice this afternoon following the prompting from the Prime Minister at her post-cabinet press conference yesterday.

The New Zealand Herald reported that Ardern told media that she knew nurses and the public would want the Government to explore any options possible to prevent industrial action.

She suggested that DHBs put together an independent panel and process to resolve the stalemate between DHBs and nurses – but this would depend on nurses being open to it.

Bloomfield said in response the DHBs and NZNO were getting around the table to kick off discussions – including DHBs sharing their initial thoughts on the PM’s panel suggestion.

Cee Payne, told Radio New Zealand this morning, that it was interested to explore what an independent panel looks like and how it would fit with the union’s bargaining framework.  She said a similar framework – of having an independent chair – had been used with the care and support workers negotiations but that had been a lengthy process and she hoped what was being considered for the nurses’ dispute was ‘timely and democratic’.  She said meanwhile in parallel it would continue to develop a strike ballot ‘backstop’.

Bloomfield said DHBs were anticipating that strike action wouldn’t happen because NZN0 had expressed “their strong preference to have the deal settled” and that “industrial action – in their words and I agree – is a last resort”.

But he said in the meantime the DHBs would be entering into detailed contingency planning in the event there was industrial action and would be working with NZNO to determine what life-preserving services would continue to be offered by nurses during any strike action.

Cee Payne told a press conference yesterday that the next bargaining strategy was still to be decided at an upcoming national delegates meeting but it was likely that the strike ballot would include the option of several 24 hour strikes paced out over a period of time.

“We’re hopeful though… very hopeful that the Government and employers will see the need to step into this dispute and assist the employers to address our members’ concerns around pay and staffing.”

Bloomfield said the rejected offer was “right at the extent of affordability for DHBs”.  He said so if it had to “go further with the pay side” of the offer than it would obviously need to talk very closely with the Ministry of Health and the health minister.

He said it cost about $17 million for every one per cent pay increase agreed to for the DHBs’ nurse, midwife and health care assistant workforce.

“And then of course there is usually a flow-on effect to nurses employed outside the DHBs – and most of those are working with providers that DHBs contract with.  So there is a wider impact as well.”

Ardern also noted at yesterday’s conference that  pay was not the only issue on the table and that all DHBs were operating in deficit.  She did not answer questions on how much funding the Government had set aside for pay rises.

This morning the Prime Minister told Radio New Zealand that it was committed to reinvesting in health services and that she did not realise how bad the situation was – particularly on the capital side of the ledger but also on what DHBs were operating on and that had a “knock-on effect”.

Bloomfield was also very clear that the message being sent by nurses that safe staffing issues were very important because of the pressure nurses felt under. He told Nursing Review that the pressure was here and now and – winter not far away –  he acknowledged nurses wanted to feel there was “some really clear plans to help relieve the pressure”.

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